God Calling

One of the hardest parts of being in love is waiting for the phone to ring. When love is fresh and new, you count the days or hours or minutes until she calls again. In long relationships, the waiting for the phone to ring might just as easily be about annoyance as anticipation - he was supposed to have called home by now. And at the end of life, as often as not it is a phone call that brings you news of a fall that you hoped he would not suffer, or the final word of her diagnosis, or, at last, a summons to the hospital bedside.

Waiting for the phone to ring – waiting for that call (whatever it is) – is a hard part of being in love. And you don’t even need to really be in love to know the hard part of waiting for the call. A crush, the mere possibility of love, is enough to keep you checking your cell phone every minute or so. Wondering if the call will come at all. Surely it will. How long will it be? Why is he waiting so long? Is it too soon for me to call? At least now, with cell phones, you don’t have to sit at home any more and wait by the phone… just in case!

There still exists in the world today the possibility that people like you and me have at some point in our lives fallen in love with God. Although we are extraordinarily shy about it, I think it is safe to take it for granted, in the privacy of our own church – that at some point, some how, in some measure, most of us have at least had a crush on God. And for some of us it has gone further.

But whether your love affair with God is in its first throes or its last, or someplace in between, perhaps you have had the frustration of waiting for the phone to ring, so to speak: wondering if God is going to call, if he will speak to you, or at the very least send you a sign from time to time.

And I think one reason some of us remain comfortable with the use of the male pronoun to speak of God is because, just like a man, he sometimes seems to have a bad track record of communication. Why doesn’t he call more often… just to talk?!

It is often assumed that the clergy do not suffer from a lack of communication with God. I am often asked, for instance, what my “call” was like – for that, indeed, is the word we like to use when we speak of the way God seems to have reached out to us to bring us into ordained ministry.

For better or worse, the story of my own call includes no fantastic dreams, no voices in the night, not a single instance of being struck blind on the roadside. But I can tell you that for a long time I wished that it had!

And the bald truth of the matter is that the clergy do not necessarily enjoy more open channels of communication with God than others do, even though we have been given the time to make ourselves available. Just because we wear the collar does not mean we are less likely to find ourselves waiting, and waiting, and waiting for the spiritual phone to ring, and wondering, when will he call?

The unmistakable theme of the readings today is the message, in the stories of Samuel and of Philip and Nathaniel, that God calls. We hear the marvelous account of Samuel’s dream - that reminds us that even though we might hear God calling, we often have trouble recognizing the call for what it is and figuring out how to respond. And we hear about Jesus gathering his disciples by calling out to them, “Follow me!” and by making the truth about who he is plainly evident even before thy have seen what he can do.

God calls. And every time this assertion is made – in the Bible or from the pulpit or anywhere else – it is paired with a challenge to respond. But I suspect that many of us never really bother to listen much to the challenge because we get hung up on its premise. Oh yes, we believe there was a time when God used to call. Yes, we believe that there were people God called. And we may even believe that for the especially holy (or at least those with enough time on their hands to sit around and wait) God may still occasionally call.

But the assertion that every preacher will want to make – that God calls you and you and you and you to follow him, to be disciples of his Son, to take a role in the work of building up his kingdom – this seems obligatory for the preacher and unlikely to the congregant. After all, you have been sitting faithfully in your pews – some of you in the same darn pews for an awfully long time; you have been waiting patiently, it’s not like you have been hard to find. If God calls, how come you have never heard the phone ring?

It is interesting to me that both of the stories of calls that we heard today involve intermediaries. Young Samuel has Eli, and although Philip hears Jesus call out to him directly, it is Philip who first beings word of Jesus to Nathaniel. True, Nathaniel is skeptical, but he would have no questions to be answered had Philip not sought him out and brought him word of Jesus. The fact of these intermediaries in hearing God’s call is a reminder that hearing is not always as easy as we think it is, and it sometimes requires help, and a process of discernment.

The circumstances of my own conviction of God’s call involved not just one intermediary but many, over a span of some years. And I could name for you at least a dozen people who I relied on, as Samuel relied on Eli, to convince me that I should pay attention to what I thought I might be hearing, and that eventually I should learn to pray, like Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

And I know from experience that most of us need help discerning the sound of God’s call to us. It is seldom as obvious as a ringing telephone – (it’s more like having your phone set on “vibrate”). But why should it surprise us or put us off that we might need help in discerning God’s call? I would need help just to discern a birdcall, were I to stop and listen. Even if I were to go out to the woods just to hear the birds, without help I wouldn’t know what I was listening to. Why would it be easier to discern the call of God than it is to know what the birds are singing about?

Notice however, in our two biblical stories, that neither Eli nor Philip serves as interpreter. It is not up to these intermediaries to decipher messages from God. It is enough that they should help their charges turn their attention in the right direction, to learn how to ask the right question, to be in the right place at the right time.

And this morning, I get the sense that this is my task – as your priest and fellow pilgrim in faith, and as one who has himself fallen in love with God, but also known the utter frustration of waiting for the phone to ring, wondering why he does not call more often, counting the minutes, hours, and days since I last heard from him – that my task is to help you to discern: to turn your attention in the right direction, to know how to ask the right questions, and to know how to be in the right place at the right time to hear the call of God when it comes.

And my advice is simple – three things: Pray. Shut up. Go to church.

Prayer is our participation in the ongoing conversation that God has with his people. If you have something to say to God, you say it in prayer, whether it’s whispered or shouted. Put time aside to pray every day, even if it’s just a few minutes before you go to bed and you commend to God’s care the people you love and give thanks for the blessings of the day or complain about its annoyances. Pray.

Prayer is a two way street, and if you are going to learn to discern God’s call you will also want to learn how to shut up and listen. This is the hard part of prayer, when we try to keep our minds from wandering and learn how to listen for God. Learning how to meditate is a good way to learn to shut up and listen. But you can begin by just finding a quiet place and concentrating on breathing deeply and listening, listening, listening. And if you should fall asleep, don’t worry, perhaps God wants to talk to you in your dreams anyway. But by all means, shut up and listen.

Of course it sounds self-serving to say that you should go to church, and a bit beside the point, since you are obviously here. But sometimes we need to be reminded why it’s important that we are here. This parish community is founded on the notion that God has called people to gather together in this spot on Locust Street, to sing and pray and praise his name. The stones are stacked into walls here and the glass painted with pictures because of the conviction of successive generations that God has something to say and to do among the people who gather here. And it makes sense to come together in a place where God seems reliably to be found – especially in a community that carries out like clockwork every day Christ’s command to break bread together.

It’s certainly not impossible to hear God call if you don’t go to church, but at our best we are meant to be a community of those who have practiced listening for God’s call; to help one another through the waiting times, and to teach each other how to discern the sound or the feel of God’s voice. Go to church.

Pray. Shut up. Go to church. That’s my advice if you want to hear God’s call.

And the assurance I give you is this: that God does call, that he is already calling and will never stop calling you or me. Jesus’ call to follow him is a call to daily conversion, learning how to love one another as he loved us. And it is a call that never stops.

And the truth about our anxiety, when we fall in love, about waiting for the phone to ring, often has very little to do with the message of the call itself, and more to do with its latent meaning, normally some variant of, “Does he love me too?” Early on we fear that our love may be unrequited. Throughout the middle of life we fear that love has grown so stale that it’s beyond hope. And late in life we fear that first dementia and then death will rob us of the one thing that can’t be replaced in life. In all these stages of life we worry that our love will be met by nothing at all in the one we love so much.

So it is scary to think of falling in love with God, who has a history of sometimes being inscrutable. If I love him, will he love me too? And how will I know.

And the irony is that we know how much God loves us because he never stops calling us to his side, never stops beckoning us to take up our work in the building of his kingdom. He never forgets our names, or loses track of us, and he never forgets to call.

And although we live in a world where even the simple things we can do to better discern God’s call have become challenges, it remains the fact that these are pretty easy things to do: Pray. Shut up. Go to church.

And if you should happen to feel – even just for a moment – that maybe God is trying to get to you, to whisper softly in your ear, try this, just say to him, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
18 January 2009
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on January 18, 2009 .